KALAMATA, Greece (AP) — Rescuers moved the bodies of dead migrants into refrigerated trucks as a major search for survivors of a sea disaster in southern Greece continued Thursday. Hundreds more are feared missing.
At least 78 bodies have been recovered after a fishing boat full of migrants trying to cross from Libya to Italy capsized in deep water off the Greek coast a day earlier.
Rescuers rescued 104 passengers, including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians, but officials fear hundreds more may be trapped below deck. If confirmed, the tragedy would become one of the worst ever recorded In the central Mediterranean.
Officials have revised the confirmed death toll from 79 following an overnight body count.
“The survivors are in a very difficult situation. Now they are in shock,” Erasmia Rumana, head of the United Nations refugee agency, told The Associated Press after meeting rescued migrants in a storage hangar in the southern port of Kalamata.
“They want to be in touch with their families, they want to be told they’re OK, and they keep asking about missing people. Many have countless friends and relatives.
Greece declared three days of mourning and politicians suspended campaigning for a June 25 general election.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy and pledged to strengthen cooperation between the EU and neighboring countries to further crack down on migrant smugglers.
But human rights groups argue that this crackdown means migrants and refugees are forced to travel long and dangerous routes to reach safe countries.
A search operation south of Greece’s Peloponnese region did not find any more bodies or survivors overnight or early Thursday.
“The chances of finding (and surviving) are very low,” retired Greek Coast Guard Admiral Nikos Spanos told state-run ERT television.
“We have seen old fishing boats like this from Libya before: they are about 30 meters (100 feet) long and can carry 600-700 people when full. But they are not sea friendly. Simply put, they are floating coffins.
Coast Guard officials believe the boat may have run out of fuel or sunk due to engine trouble, causing it to list and eventually capsize due to the movement of passengers inside the vessel.
An aerial photo released by Greek authorities before the ship sank showed people crowding the deck. Most were not wearing life jackets.
“We are witnessing one of the greatest tragedies in the Mediterranean, and the numbers reported by the authorities are devastating,” said Gianluca Rocco, head of the Greek division of the UN migration agency IOM.
IOM has recorded more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances in the Central Mediterranean since 2014.
Greece’s coast guard said it had been notified by Italian authorities of the trawler’s presence in international waters. Attempts by its own ships and merchant vessels to help the boat were repeatedly rebuffed, with those on board insisting they wanted to continue to Italy.
Twenty-nine of the survivors in southern Greece remain in hospital with mostly hypothermic symptoms, while eight are being questioned by Coast Guard investigators. The survivors will be transferred to a migrant shelter near Athens later Thursday or Friday, government officials said.
The location is close to the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, and a depth of 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) would preclude any attempt to locate the sunken ship.
IOM said initial reports suggested up to 400 people were on board. The activist network said a distress call came from a boat in the same area as the one carrying 750 passengers.
Deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean in living memory On April 18, 2015, a fishing boat off Libya collided with a cargo ship attempting to come to its rescue. Only 28 people survived. Forensic experts concluded that the boat was originally carrying 1,100 people.
Baphitis is reported from Athens, Greece. Associated Press writer Renata Prieto in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.
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